LIVE REVIEW: Richard Dawson, Yakka Doon @ Sage Gateshead (31.10.20) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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After almost eight months of deafening silence, well-documented financial woes and heart-breaking job losses, the return of live music to Sage Gateshead ought to be cause for celebration. As it is, the second of today’s two shows is preceded by confirmation of a new national lockdown. As such, the atmosphere throughout is decidedly sober; the joys of catharsis offset by disquiet as to when this kind of event will be permitted again. The staff and organisation within the venue are superb – what a tragedy that all those efforts and hours of training have been pissed up a wall by the shower of incompetent charlatans calling the shots from Downing Street.

With gatherings during intervals presenting perhaps the greatest risk of transmission, support act Yakka Doon’s performance takes place not in Hall 1, but rather on building’s concourse. It’s not an ideal set-up or vantage point, yet this inconvenience does little to knock singer and songwriter Claire Welford from her stride. Supplemented by the violin, banjo and backing vocal of local folk linchpin Phil Tyler, her acoustic wares are imbued with a quaint, pastoral charm, enriched by her fragile choral chime on the sublime likes of Walk the North and Golden Plover. It’s a short but sweet sample of last year’s full-length Strenuous Detour, drawing a warm response despite ostensibly feeling better suited to more intimate surrounds.

Once we’ve all been shepherded group-by-group into Hall 1, the sight which greets Richard Dawson is alien and perhaps a tad disconcerting; a magnificent 1600 capacity room capped at a socially distant audience of around 300. Still sporting his lengthy lockdown locks, this evening finds Dawson in his now lesser spotted solo guise – a throwback to the pub gigs and ‘best-kept-secret’ memories of days gone by, but with much of the focus leant on last year’s widely celebrated 2020. An unflinching, and oftentimes grim portrayal of contemporary Britain, its compassionate vignettes strike a potent chord even without their usual full band backing, retaining resonance even after 12 months which have cast their landscapes in a comparatively utopian light. Who’d have thought, for instance, that Jogging’s soul-cleansing candour would centre on one of our sole reasons for leaving our homes, or that the impeccably observed Two Halves’ vision of empty football stadiums would prove so prophetic?

Occasional hints of rustiness notwithstanding – Hob is jettisoned mid-song after he draws a blank on the lyrics – the ensuring 80 minutes strike all the familiar, remarkable notes. For all that it’s pitched in the 6th century Kingdom of Bryneich, Soldier in particular has become a perennial tearjerker whose tale of fear, weariness and forlorn hope is reflected explicitly in our own times – though tonight even it is eclipsed by the set’s two bookends. Opener Civil Servant embodies 2020 the album in a nutshell, offering a plethora of humour and compassion alongside its rejection of austerity and platform for Dawson’s extraordinary vocal range. Better still, we’re sent home with the unexpected fillip of The Vile Stuff, a resurrected masterpiece which remains his crowning songwriting achievement, and whose ragged performance evokes a more unhinged era which both prefaced and preluded his ascent to wider prominence.

That’s it then. With staff back on furlough and the remainder of the Sage’s COVID-secure programme either postponed or moved online, the prospect of tonight proving to be live music’s swansong in 2020 is a very real one. It’s an evening to savour, yet one over which events and decisions made beyond these walls cast a bleak shadow. It was fun while it lasted.

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